This story is paired with “Aladdin” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
When the world was full of wonders and wishing still helped, there lived a sultan by the name of ‘Ala-ed-Din. His name was spoken with great wonder far and wide for the construction of a serai that was unsurpassed in beauty throughout the whole of the empire of El Kal’as. The walls of the serai were adored with jasper and carnelian carvings and precious stones; people came from miles to glimpse the many mosaics throughout its perfumed halls. It was whispered amongst the inhabitants of El Kal’as that the palace had been built in a single night, though it seemed an impossible task to those who walked under the emerald buttresses and drank from the jeweled fountains in the pavilion. When one stood before the dizzying array of minarets and cupolas there could be no other explanation than magic, and visitors to the sultanate were stunned into silent belief in the face of such majesty.
‘Ala-ed-Din had enjoyed a fruitful reign as sultan and was beloved by his subjects. In his youth he had expanded the empire and in the fullness of maturity he ruled wisely in peace. He fathered three sons, each more handsome and skilled than the last, and when his hair began to frost with silver and his joints stiffened with the rust of age, he knew it was the fruits of a life well-lived going to seed. Still, ‘Ala-ed-Din was not content to settle into the coming night. One spring morning after his breakfast feast of roasted pigeon and stuffed melon, ‘Ala-ed-Din found that his heart fluttered within his chest like a trapped nightingale. He fell onto his pillows and called for the Lady Bedr-el-Budur to be brought from the seraglio. The sight of her sweet face had never ceased to calm him, even in the worst of times. He longed to kiss her brow and entwine their fingers as if they were still young lovers. It suddenly seemed to him as if it had been far too long since he had seen her at his chamber door. ‘Ala-ed-Din closed his eyes against the sharp pain in his temple, trying to remember when he had seen her last, but the memory wouldn’t surface. “Bring her to me!” he shouted at the nearest mamluk.
“Forgive me, O King of the Age, but I cannot,” the mamluk said, bowing. “Your lady wife was visited by the terminator of delights and the separator of companions these many months ago. Shall I fetch the Lord Prince instead?”
How could he have forgotten? ‘Ala-ed-Din clenched his fists against the fresh wave of pain, salt in the wound that had never properly healed since he had lost his beloved first wife of the harem. “Get me my son,”he said. “I want to see Saqr-Suhail.”
Moments later, the crown prince arrived at his father’s bedside. He fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the blankets. “O King of the Time, I am your servant in your hour of need. Command anything of me, and it if it is within my power to obtain, it shall be yours. What can I do to ease your troubled mind, my father? You are restless and I seek to aid you.”
A violent spasm seized ‘Ala-ed-Din and he vomited his extravagant meal onto the brocaded bedsheets. The household eunuchs cleared the mess in moments, but shame clogged the vessels of ‘Ala-ed-Din’s heart more than the miasma he struggled to breathe through. “I am not weak,”he protested.
“Of course not, Father,” Saqr-Suhail said from his knees. “You are Sultan. You reign supreme. You shall never die.”
“Die?” ‘Ala-ed-Din raised onto his elbows in panic. “Die?”
“No, never.” Saqr-Suhail pressed his lips together. “Do not trouble yourself with such a thought.”
A crackle in ‘Ala-ed-Din’s lungs made it difficult to draw breath, as if someone had placed a veil over his mouth. He opened his lips wide and gulped the air, but it didn’t help. “Bedr-el-Budur … died. How could … I … have forgotten … that … even for … a moment?”
Saqr-Suhail sighed. “My lady mother is at peace now. There is no need to fret so, Father. Calm yourself. Lie back and have a sip of honeyed wine.” He signaled to a mamluk to step forward.
‘Ala-ed-Din waved away the cup. “I don’t want … wine. I don’t … want … sugar dates. I don’t want to…” he trailed off before he could finish his thought.
Saqr-Suhail took his father’s hand in his. “What do you want, Father? Surely there is some way I may be of service to you.”
‘Ala-ed-Din squeezed his son’s fingers. “Bring me the Lamp of the Treasure.”
Saqr-Suhail dropped his father’s hand and stood. “Lord of the Age and the Season, you are very wise. I bow to your every whim as your son and heir and subject. But this you cannot ask of me. This, you must not do.”
“It’s mine,” ‘Ala-ed-Din said with failing voice. “I command you to bring it to me.”
“By your own order, it is under guard by the officers of the army in the Hall of Audience,”Saqr-Suhail said. “It is never to be removed under any circumstance, even your own death. It is the law. Do not ask it of me, Father, I beg of you.”
With the last vestiges of his strength, ‘Ala-ed-Din sat up in his silken bed and gazed at his son. “You will fetch me the lamp or you shall forfeit your life.”
Saqr-Suhail had no choice but to bring the lamp. While ’Ala-ed-Din awaited his return, he espied the china bowls heaped full of rare gemstones that the ‘efrit of the lamp had brought for him to present the sultan for Bedr-el-Budur’s hand in marriage. ‘Ala-ed-Din remembered it as if it had been only this morning instead of decades past: he had burned with a passion for Bedr-el-Budur ever since he’d caught a glimpse of her face under her veil outside the bath house in Hammam. She’d awoken a carnal lust in him that he’d never been able to summon for anyone else before or since. They had grown to love each other. His eyes blurred with tears as he reached for the nearest sapphire that was bigger than his fist. The bowl held diamonds and rubies and pearls but this one had been her favorite. He could still hear her voice as she held it up to the light, laughing. It’s the color of your eyes, she’d said.
My eyes are black, my sweet! he laughed.
She grew serious. “They aren’t as dark as you think. I can see things you cannot. Trust me, love, your eyes are brighter than this jewel when you look at me, and you are dearer to me than all the gemstones in the earth when you look so of love.”
Her voice faded away into time, and ‘Ala-ed-Din let the sapphire fall into the dish amongst the other stones. He closed his eyes until he heard Saqr-Suhail’s approach. “Did you bring me what I asked for?”
Saqr-Suhail bowed. “Yes, Father. May it grant you peace.” He placed the lamp in his father’s hands and left the chamber. His exit went unnoticed.
The lamp was smaller than ‘Ala-ed-Din had remembered. He squinted at the lusterless surface, marveling once again that such an innocuous object could be fit to contain the wonders of the world within its tarnished interior. It fit the curve of his palm with no length to spare. He worried a dent with his thumb and traced the chinked chain with his fingernail. ‘Ala-ed-Din turned over the lid and peered underneath, but could find no mark to set it apart from any ordinary oil lamp. His pulse quickened and for a moment he feared he had created the entire fancy from his fevered imaginings. What if this was just a hunk of brass? What if there was no safe harbor for him? Perhaps he had only dreamed himself the son of a dead tailor those many years ago and his adventures had never come to pass. Could he face impending mortality?
The shadow was too grim to bear contemplating; ‘Ala-ed-Din hadn’t meant to summon one of the Jann at the end of his life, but the ability to do so was too accessible to ignore. He must not waste the power of the lamp. The metal warmed between his palms, and ‘Ala-ed-Din caressed the careworn surface with his fingers. He needed it. He would have it.
He rubbed the lamp.
A marid appeared as it had all those years ago. It did not issue forth in smoke or crack into existence in a hail of light; rather, in one moment ‘Ala-ed-Din was alone in the room and the next he was not. The marid watched ‘Ala-ed-Din’s hands clutch the lamp and saw his chest rise too slowly to sustain life. He pulled his lips back in a grin that was more grimace, and ‘Ala-ed-Din shuddered to see a mouthful of spikes.
“My wish is your command, master.”
‘Ala-ed-Din nodded and held up a hand, gaining time to speak. “I want to live.”
The marid crossed his arms. “Live you do.”
‘Ala-ed-Din frowned. “Don’t be … impertinent, ‘efrit. I want … to live as I once did. I want to … ride in the meydân and … throw my jerid as the … champion I was. I want Lady Bedr-el-Budur.”‘Al-ed-Din closed his eyes.
“Many things are possible, master. Many things are not.”
“Make it … possible,” ‘Ala-ed-Din whispered.
The marid laughed. “You know not what you ask, master.”
‘Ala-ed-Din’s eyes opened. “What kind of jinni are you? We were … wrong to ask you … about rukh egg from the mountains of Kaf, and …we begged your pardon. But this?”‘Ala-ed-Din paused until he could speak again. He knew if the jinni did not grant his request soon that he would run out of time. “Have you lost your power?”
The marid tilted its head. “Insults are nothing to me. I am thinking only of you, master. How many times shall we play this scene? To the ending of eternity, I think. Surely to the ending of eternity.”
“You make no sense!”’Ala-ed-Din snapped. “I’ve only … asked you once.”
“Many times before,” the marid said. “As many grains of sand as there are in the desert. As many stars as you count in the sky. You have lived and lost your love that many times before, and still you ask again and again. You have found forever, master, yet you have not found wisdom in all the echoes of eons around you.”
A shadow was beginning to creep into the edges of ‘Ala-ed-Din’s vision. He blinked, but it would not clear. “Help me! You must help me. I fear it is too late!”
The marid bowed his head. “Say the words you would have me do, master. I am yours to command.”
‘Ala-ed-Din’s chest would not fill with air. He tried to pull the oxygen into his lungs, but they were sluggish to respond. He clawed at his throat, but it was tired and could only gurgle. The words beat in his mind like trapped birds fluttering around and around his skull. Then, on a broken dam of air, one last gasp burst through his body and the rotten logs of his words fell through his lips and he was still: “I wish to start over.”
If the marid regretted his task, he didn’t show it. He merely bowed and said, “I hear and obey.”
* * *
In an alley three miles from the palace, a widow bit down against a scream rising in her throat and gave the final push that delivered her baby into the world. ‘Ala-ed-Din opened his eyes against the blur of the gutterlight and he cried.
A contributor to many compendiums, John Vicary‘s most recent credentials include short fiction in Spark and the collections We Were Heroes and Temporary Skeletons. John is an editor at Bedlam Publishing. He enjoys playing piano and lives in rural Michigan with his family.